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The value of science (1955) [pdf] (caltech.edu)
97 points by mutor 43 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 21 comments

I forget where I first read this essay, but I have a tendency to go through periods in which I fixate on some person and exhaustively read everything I can find about them and Feynman was one of those people for me at one point (another was Hunter S Thompson - perhaps I have some attraction to brilliant and also deeply flawed people).

There are many interesting points in this piece that are worthy of further discussion but I just wanted to call out for appreciation one of the most poetic passages here:

“Stands at the sea... wonders at wondering... I... a universe of atoms... an atom in the universe”

Beautiful, and also for me personally very charming because I hear it in Feynman’s voice as I have heard it in numerous videos and audio recordings, so down to earth and with the same kind of Long Island accent that my paternal grandmother had.

> ...brilliant and also deeply flawed people

We are all deeply flawed. In my experience, being unashamed of our flaws is a side-effect of honestly and humility. Being unable to spot another's flaws is most often the result of duplicity on their part. Sure, there are some pretty decent folks out there (Fred rogers comes to mind) but nearly all "perfect" people are just charlatans.

It's good to admire flawed people, because they are real.

I'd take this a step further and say it's important to talk about their flaws in nuanced and honest ways. It's something that is both extremely difficult and extremely important. To say "here are the great things they brought into the world" and to say "here are the things that were not so great" and to use both pieces of information when we construct ourselves and our society.

Someone who very much falls into this category is Ghandi. A person who was as complex as they were impactful. Ghandi has had an undeniably huge impact on the well being of a huge portion of the world. He was also disgusting and abusive to individuals around him. We, as individuals, need to make it clear that one of these is great and the other is unacceptable. We are capable of such nuance.

Agreed. Gandhi (note corrected spelling) certainly had his flaws.

Meanwhile, Gandhi's views on the value of science were not as well known and he is often mis-reported as "anti-science,". because he often harshly criticized animal testing and weapons development. He in fact admired the scientific method and its search for the truth.

What he was against was imposing imported western technology on a poor and illiterate populace without actually "teaching them to fish". His contemporaries like Jawaharlal Nehru wanted rapid industrialization to catch up with the West. Gandhi wanted the vast masses in the countryside to develop a scientific outlook and become self-sufficient, not just a supplier of raw materials for the educated urban elite.

His views on science are analyzed in a long article by Prof. Shambu Prasad:


A 2019 NPR interview with famous historian Ramachandra Guha about Gandhi's flaws and his evolving views on racism is worth reading.


You seem to conflate the fact that we're none of us perfect with the assertion we're all deeply flawed. What does "deeply flawed" mean? Hunter S. Thompson was a severely unhappy man with extreme drug problems who shot himself in the head. Unfortunately, people like him aren't particularly uncommon. You've flattened out the landscape of human experience into this, at best, trivial comment that "we're all deeply flawed".

The idea that nearly all "perfect" people are just charlatans is also quite toxic. Is it true that many people try extremely hard to hide their problems? Sure, sounds plausible. But is it also true that the only way someone might appear perfect is by being a "charlatan"? Of course not. For example, maybe not every person's faults are exposed to the interface between that person and your slice of the universe.

I feel a little bit icky slamming on a comment so hard, but I think this flattening out of the human condition is a major negative thread in our culture/society right now.

> the greatest value must be the freedom to doubt

I used to emphatically applaud this statement, but in this era of fake news and disinformation, now I tend to think differently. Of course the freedom to doubt is still important, but not all doubts are created equally. You have to beware of someone feeding you a suspicious doubt.

Perhaps the ones falling prey to fake news and disinformation are not doubting enough or their doubting is one-sided. What they lack is the doubt in their own thinking and believing. I believe we should question our own convictions as often as possible and try to understand where they are coming from. That is, try to be aware of how our upbringing, our current personal situation, the experiences we've had in life (and the ones we didn't have) might influence our thinking.

But he was not just saying "yay, doubt!", he was arguing that freedom to doubt was crucial to past progress, and that everyone's then-current state of knowledge was also riddled with error. Do you think this is any less true now? This part acknowledges what seems like your exact concern:

> Communications between nations must promote understanding: So went another dream. But the machines of communication can be channeled or choked. What is communicated can be truth or lie. Communication is a strong force also, but for either good or bad.

The change of this sort since 1955 that most comes to mind, for me, is that we have more information hazards analogous to "blueprints for a working A-bomb": now we have "genome of smallpox" and (maybe soonish) "algorithm for superhuman intelligence". But it's not like Feynman had no personal acquaintance with that category of hazards; and the current drive for censorship is way way broader. I think his case against it is just as good now, and more needed.

> this era of fake news and disinformation

To doubt means to test every proposition with intellectual integrity. And with a knowledge of established fact.

This is dependent on one inhabiting a social group where successful education has improved discourse and general thinking ability.

In the social context, it isn't as bad everywhere else as in the US. Propaganda has become lucrative, that's all.

A concept I’ve been throwing around for a while is classifying truth.

An idea is a static description, immutable, zero variables. It can exist in one of the following three states:

- belief, zero supporting evidence - fact, only non-contradictatory supporting evidence - paradox, supporting and disproving evidence exists

All states are valid, but only an idea classified as a fact should be relied upon as evidence for another idea.

Every idea starts as a belief.

A fact can change to a belief if the evidence brought to bear on it is proven to not be classified as a fact. Equally it can become a paradox if new evidence contradicts existing evidence.

Resolution of a paradox would require at least two new, more precise ideas to be created, likely with a clause defining the demarcation of the paradox boundary. The paradox entity remains unchanged.

Reliance on a belief to support an argument I consider ‘agnostic ignorance’, and reliance on a paradox is ‘wilful ignorance’.

The title is reminiscent of Poincaré's essay La valeur de la science. It was translated into english with the same title The Value of Science. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Value_of_Science

Interesting read, but was the article printed like that, or maybe someone scanned it with a 20th century scanner? :)

Feynman gave this as a public address to a 1955 meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. It was then published in Engineering and Science 19: 13–15. ISSN 0013-7812.

You can find it retranscribed here http://www.faculty.umassd.edu/j.wang/feynman.pdf or there http://alexpetrov.com/memes/sci/value.html


Feynman is a legend

But not without flaws (it's hard to know how much truth there is with the women - definitely a womaniser, possibly abusive but that could be just be for the divorce - but Gell-Manns criticism of him is pretty funny)

I wasn’t aware (don’t really follow the news).

My view is to value the work and leave the personal side out of things — with the same token, we should not over idolize people and expect them to be our saviors outside their chosen field. Celebrity worship is bad, they are just humans after all.

I should rephrase my original comment as “Richard Feynman is a legend in Physics”.

> definitely a womaniser,

Curious - should someone who as consensual casual affairs with women be labeled as a "flaw"?

I think pretending to be an undergraduate to get with (your?) Students is pushing it.

I have heard him called sexist, but then again I have also heard him be referred to as slightly sexist but at the time one of not many people who would talk shop to women.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.


The last part is kinda obvious as simpler would be impossible, per the statement.

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